Because post positions will not be drawn for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby until Wednesday evening and Louisville meteorologists are not sure if we will get a light or heavy dose of rain on Friday or Saturday, it is impossible for me to make a clear cut Derby pick for this column five days before the race.
Just to set the parameters, if a deluge hits Churchill Downs on Friday, leaving a sticky or muddy racing surface for the 1-1/4 mile Derby, Santa Anita Derby winner Exaggerator just might repeat his dominating win over Mor Spirit in the world’s most famous race.
Beyond Exaggerator, several other horses among the 20 prospective Derby starters also have proven themselves on wet and/or muddy surfaces. Under such circumstances, proven wet track form might prove to be the decisive factor while post positions may not matter at all.
Should there be only mild rain, or none at all, Churchill’s racing surface probably will come up relatively dry and superfast, which will force astute horseplayers to carefully examine the impact of post positions on the probable pace. The post draw also could impact the chances of horses that need to work out comfortable stalking trips without being forced extremely wide.
These issues will be important because this Derby has a full field of closely-matched contenders. As hinted in the first paragraph, it is impractical right now to narrow the Derby field to one or two horses without the confidence one likes to have to make an aggressive play.
Yet, because I have been watching these horses as they have progressed through a season of prep races and workouts, I do have positive and negative thoughts about many of the contenders, as well as how I might approach this Derby with my hard earned cash.
Naturally, I reserve my right to refine my thoughts until 6 p.m. this Friday when I will be joined at the Sunset Station racebook by noted handicappers Brian Blessing, Richard Eng, Dave Valento and Sunset’s Chuck Esposito, as we all present our different perspectives at that special Derby handicapping seminar. By all means, please feel free to drop in.
Below you will find my strongest impressions to date on the majority of Derby horses expected to compete on Saturday:
NYQUIST: The undefeated Derby favorite, is the “par” of this Derby field. He has run well in every one of his seven career starts while not acting as if he is anywhere close to the quality of American Pharoah, last year’s Derby winner who became the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Triple Crown. No reason to expect him to run poorly on Saturday. Even so, at 2-1 or 5-2, Nyquist does seem worth trying to beat for all the money, while somewhat difficult to ignore in the Trifecta.
MOR SPIRIT: As Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert tries to win his fifth Derby while seeking a second in succession, Mor Spirit has shown considerable grit and determination in all starts and workouts. He does loom to be a logical contender with Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens at about 6-1, or maybe even 9-2, pending a reasonable post position.
GUN RUNNER: Trained by newly elected Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, this colt has had a relatively light racing schedule, but he won the Louisiana Derby with a stalking trip under the rising star Florent Geroux that included a good finish and a strong gallop out. More recently, Gun Runner’s 5-furlong workout last week was the single smoothest (if not strongest) training move I have seen by a Derby contender to date. He could offer considerable value at 12-1 or higher.
OUTWORK: Pending his post position, this wire to wire Wood Memorial winner is the likely pace setter, along with perhaps, the next horse on this list. Nevertheless, Outwork would be a major surprise if he wins.
DANZING CANDY: Set a brisk pace when fourth in the April 9 Santa Anita Derby on a wet surface and established the pace while winning the San Felipe Stakes on a dry SA track, March 12. Might surprise while racing on-or-near the pace at about 12-1, especially if Outwork and Nyquist draw terrible post positions.
EXAGGERATOR: Does not have to come from out of the clouds to run his best race. But, as he showed in the SA Derby, if he gets a very fast pace to run at and there is moisture in the track, Exaggerator will be a dangerous threat at about 8-1 odds under three-time Derby winning jockey Kent Desormeaux.
DESTIN: Won both of his stakes at Tampa Bay Downs with efficient, stalking trips. That running style would suit him perfectly, if he is able to secure a good position behind the speed from a favorable post position. Like Outwork, Destin is trained by Todd Pletcher, who sets records wherever he goes, but has a poor efficiency rating in this, the most famous race in the world. Does rate an upset chance though at 15-1, or so.
MOHAYMEN: Was rated the equal or better than Nyquist until his disappointing fourth place finish behind that colt in the Florida Derby, April 16. Maybe he can rebound, but, I have to see it before I believe it. I can’t play him, but some might be more forgiving at 15-1.
SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS, BRODY’S CAUSE, CREATOR, SHAGAF, OSCAR NOMINATED, WHITMORE and MO TOM are all stretch runners with respectable credentials who could crack the Superfecta at 25-1 or higher. Realistically, for any of these to do better than that, they will need a pace meltdown while the stalkers miss-fire.
Otherwise, let me wish great luck to all who love this game and this special race – as I have – since cashing my first Derby bet on Carry Back in 1961.
Steve Davidowitz, author of the best selling “,” has covered racing since Secretariat, lives in Vegas and has just completed a new book – “Cashing Big on Racing’s Biggest Days.” Should you wish to purchase a personally autographed copy, please send Steve a note for details: SteveDavidowitz @GamingToday.com